Posts filed under 'Fictional'

Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas

4 comments March 3rd, 2011 Headsman

The main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son was condemned to a March 3 electrocution by the state of Illinois.

In Number 666-983, indictment for murder, the sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third,* in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state.

The Court finds your age to be twenty.

The Sheriff may retire with the prisoner.

Readers are not treated to the actual execution scene, but the hopelessness of Bigger Thomas’s situation is the book‘s whole context and theme. There is little room to entertain a reprieve.

“In the first draft I had Bigger going smack to the electric chair,” the author remarked. “But I felt that two murders were enough for one novel. I cut the final scene.”

The first Book of the Month club selection by an African American author was an instant best-seller, but hardly easy reading. Wright tackles the catastrophic “hatred, fear, and violence” suffusing negro life.

Inspired in part by a real-life Windy City murderer, Bigger Thomas grows up wretched and impoverished in Depression-era Chicago and eventually commits an accidental homicide, then rapes and murders his girlfriend. Wright took some heat for staging a character seemingly written to whites’ darkest fears of African-Americans, but it was his object to force the reader to relate to a violent man whose brutality is conditioned by the world he inhabits.

Bigger Thomas’s trial has his lawyer present an overt indictment of structural oppression as the true cause of Bigger’s crime.

“I didn’t want to kill,” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder … What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. It’s the truth …”

Whether Wright truly broke out of the existing literary genres may be a matter of debate.

James Baldwin considered Native Son to be of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin tradition, “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality … the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.”

All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear … elow the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy … Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

“Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pdf)

“Protest novel” or otherwise, Native Son‘s mainstream success extended to the stage, where Orson Welles — fresh from the debut of Citizen Kane — directed a Wright-written adaptation in 1941. Less successfully, Wright himself played the title role in a 1951 Argentinian film.

“Bigger Thomas” is also the name of a long-running ska band.

Though the novel is not yet public domain in the United States, it is in some countries — and can be perused free here.

* For the finicky chronologist: Native Son was published in 1940. At that point, the most recent occasions March 3 had fallen on a Friday were 1939 and 1933.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Fictional,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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Unspecified Year: The Robbers of Nordenshaw

1 comment December 24th, 2010 Headsman

This Yule, we present an ancient Danish ballad which “is probably too true a picture of the lawless conduct of men of the highest rank, and of a state of things not confined at that period to the islands of Denmark.”

The Robbers at Nordenshaw

The Robbers lurking at Nordenshaw*
From out the green-wood creep,
And march by night to the farmer’s house,
Their Yule with him to keep.**

They’ve march’d away to the farmer’s house
With each in hand a spear;
“Come, cousin, see, we are kith and kin,
“Tap us thy Christmas beer.

“And, farmer, lodge us all tonight,
“And well with liquor ply,
“And with us leave thy pretty wife,
“Or, farmer, thou shalt die.”

“I’ll freely pour my mead and ale,
“And well I’ll serve you too;
“But, Sirs, by all that’s good above,
“No outrage on us do.

“Now if upon my house ye seize,
“And lord it at your will,
“And if ye put my wife to shame,
“That were outrageous ill.”

Some on the table threw their swords,
Some cloaks of fur so fine,
Some bade the honest farmer’s wife
Bring in the beer and wine.

A cloth of woven silk she took,
And over the table spread;
And there her ale and wine they drank,
And ate her meat and bread.

A cautious wife was Oaselille,
And used her words with care;
She rose and told the robber guests
She would their beds prepare.

No thought had she, good Oaselille,
With them to share her bed;
But left them feasting, and for help
Through the dark forest sped.

With hurried step through bush and field
Ran on the lusty dame,
And after four long weary miles
To Drost Sir Peter’s† came.

She reach’d Sir Peter’s courtyard gate,
Drew on her mantle blue,
And boldly up to the upper room,
Sir Peter’s chamber, flew.

“Wake up, Drost Peter Hoseale, wake,
“No moment longer sleep;
“The thieves, that lurk’d at Nordenshaw,
“With us their Christmas keep.

“What! still, Sir Peter, slumbering on
“Nor yet but half awake?
“Those robbers twelve are at the Grange,
“All twelve are now to take.”

Then rose the Drost and call’d his men,
And bade them all to arm;
“Wake up, my men, there’s come tonight
“Good news from yonder farm.

“Wake up, no moment more delay,
“And d’on your trusty mail;
“For Nilus Ufridson is there,
And not the man to quail.”

“Where,” ask’d those sturdy robbers twelve,
They’d drunk of ale so deep,
“Where’s now the farmer’s pretty wife?
“We’ll have her here to sleep.”

“Chide not, good Sirs, a short delay”
The grey-coat farmer said;
“She is even now to the chamber gone
“To make her guests their bed.”

The farmer out of his window look’d,
And saw the Drost’s array;
“There stop here thirty men at arms,
“Are dress’d like cushats gray.”

Then answer’d Nilus Ufridson,
“Of such I’m not afraid,
“If but my comrades stand as firm,
“And faithful prove my blade.”

“No,” answer’d Lave Rimordson,
“And scann’d the troop afield,
“For such men care we not a bean,
“To them we’ll never yield.”

They beat the door with sword and spear
And rais’d a fearful shout;
“Up up, Sir Nilus Ufridson!
“Thy gang and thou come out.”

“Seven tons of gold I’ll give thee, Drost,
“And silver other five,
“To let us hence in peace depart
“My men and me alive.”

“Thy silver, Nilus, heed I not,
“As little heed thy gold;
“Through thee weeps many an orphan child
“For friends beneath the mould.”

Hard fought Sir Nilus Ufridson,
And well he kept his ground,
And heavy were from bar and beam
The blows he dealt around.

Nor less did Lave Rimordson,
But fought with might and main
Till at the hilt by dint of blows
He broke his sword in twain.

He dash’d the hilt against a stone,
The blade stuck in the mould;
“And now, my only chance of life,
“I’ll try good words and gold.

“Drost Peter Hoseale, spare my life,
“And do me no disgrace;
“I’m near of kin to the Danish Queen
“And of an Emperor’s race.”

“If near of kin to the Queen thou art,
“And all so nobly born,
“Why to the Farmer’s didst thou go,
“And treat his rights with scorn?”

So seized Sir Peter all the twelve,
And townward march’d them off;
And set them side by side on poles,
The people’s jest and scoff.

And there they lie on rack and wheel
To bear the heat and cold;
But to the King the Drost has brought
Twelve heavy chests of gold.

* Located on the Danish island of Fyen, Fyn, or Funen.

** The Danish Jul runs all through December up to Christmas Eve, Dec. 24; that date, Christmas Eve, is the big Yule celebration in Denmark.

† I situate this execution in the 13th century based on Drost Peter’s appearance in this historical romance of Danish King Erik VI Menved‘s youth.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Mass Executions,Nobility,Outlaws,Pelf,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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1909: Valgrand in place of Fantomas

1 comment December 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1909, in the first novel of the hit French Fantomas crime serial, the title character escapes the guillotine by having a duped actor beheaded in his place.

Fantomas’s Wikipedia entry calls the character “a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 19th century to modern-day serial killers“: he’s a swashbuckling anti-hero who’s a master of disguise and perfectly okay with getting his hands bloody.

His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)

The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.

That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.

Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.

“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”

The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.

There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!

But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.

“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.

“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”

And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.

Fantomas on the silver screen

This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.

In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.

* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.

It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)

Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.

** Juve is a big fan of the then-trendy, now-discredited system of Bertillonage; Fantomas consistently runs circles around this “scientific” crime-fighting. Academics, if you please?

Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.

-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Escapes,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers

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1327: Adso’s lover in The Name of the Rose

4 comments December 1st, 2010 Headsman

On an unspecified date presumably around early December of 1327 — the timeframe is approximated by action’s story’s commencing on “a beautiful morning at the end of November” — the Inquisition burns the nameless peasant lover of the narrator in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.

Adso of Melk is apprenticed to the scientific-minded William of Baskerville — a deliberate allusion to Sherlock Holmes — when the monk is dispatched to an Italian monastery to sniff about for heresy.

The Name of the Rose unfolds a labyrinthine murder mystery around a literal labyrinth (a maze-like library) as William and Adso fight crime and the superstitious dogmatism of the Church. Well … William fights these things. Young Adso mostly comes along for the ride and keeps the action signposted for the reader with his cluelessness.

As a teenage boy, Adso has his own demons to confront.

During their short stay at the monastery, Adso has a chance, and scorching, sexual encounter with a peasant girl from the lands owned by the monks. This subplot intersects with a relentless Inquisitor — the real-life historical figure Bernard Gui* — in pursuit of refugee Dolcinians and other heretical types who were actually running around northern Italy at this time.

The long and short of it is that the girl is condemned to the stake as a sorceress on ridiculous circumstantial evidence that the reason-favoring duo is in no position to repel, and that Gui is eager to trump up further to politically muscling Dolcinian-friendly monks.

The very watchable 1986 cinematic adaptation of the novel, starring Sean Connery as Brother William and Christian Slater as Adso, takes some liberties with Eco’s text on the matter of the girl.

In the novel, her execution happens “off-camera” but with a numbing certitude; it’s an evil in the world that no protagonist can prevent, and Adso just has to get used to the idea.

I was tempted to follow her … William, grim, restrained me. “Be still, fool,” he said. “The girl is lost; she is burnt flesh.”

Directly after convicting the girl for witchcraft, and nabbing two heretical monks in the process, Gui departs the convent towards the papacy’s then-residence at Avignon for a gratifying show trial. The monks are the real prize; Brother William prophesies that the girl

will be burned beforehand, along the way, to the edification of some Catharist village along the coast. I have heard it said that Bernard is to meet his colleague Jacques Fournier (remember that name: for the present he is burning Albigensians, but he has higher ambitions), and a beautiful witch to throw on the fire will increase the prestige and the fame of both.

The smitten Adso is heartbroken over this cruelty.

“So the cellarer was right: the simple folk always pay for all, even for those who speak in their favor … who with their words of penance have driven the simple to rebel!”

The only sure thing was that the girl would be burned. And I felt responsible, because it was as if she would also expiate on the pyre the sin I had committed with her.

I burst shamefully into sobs and fled to my cell, where all through the night I chewed my pallet and moaned helplessly, for I was not even allowed — as they did in the romances of chivalry I had read with my companions at Melk — to lament and call out the beloved’s name.

This was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.

The film indulges a happier and very implausible fate for Adso’s hot little number: in this version, the executions take place on-site at the monastery, and other peasants riot, murder the Inquisitor, and free our oblate’s muse. Hey, in a work that’s all about faith, why not a little deus ex machina?

Warning: Spoilers The Name of the Rose is a detective story, and the clips below intercut the execution scene with the mystery’s big reveal. Don’t watch them if you want to approach the film or the book without knowing how it all plays out.

The movie’s softhearted approach has the benefit of allowing a more cinematic and literal presentation of Adso’s choice between the life of the mind/soul and the life of the flesh. The clip below is spoiler-safe, since you already know which one he chooses.

To geek out on this book’s complex tapestry of allusions, you could do worse than this archived study guide.

* Played by F. Murray Abraham in the film. Gui wrote a notable tract on examining heretics; dust off your Latin to read it on Google books here, or get the gist with this English-translated excerpt.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Fictional,God,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Known But To God,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Shot with Arrows,Theft,Torture,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1492: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, Nearly Headless Nick

5 comments October 31st, 2010 Elizabeth M. Hull

(Thanks to Elizabeth M. Hull for the guest post. -ed.)

Post-mortem resident of Gryffindor House, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hogsmeade, U.K.

A minor character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Nearly Headless Nick remains one of the most memorable. Executed — badly — on Halloween of 1492, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington became the ghost of Gryffindor House. The school has about 20 resident ghosts: the Grey Lady (Helena Ravenclaw) and the Bloody Baron of Slytherin House died violently as well, in a murder-suicide.

Rowling says that her editor suggested that she cut a ballad Mimsy-Porpington wrote about himself from The Chamber of Secrets. In the song, the ghost claimed to have been executed for “a mistake any wizard could make,” a “piffling error,” a case of wizardry gone wrong. Asked by Lady Grieve (otherwise unknown) to straighten her teeth, Mimsy-Porpington seems to have given her a tusk. “They” imprisoned the piffler immediately, though he cried all night that he could fix his mistake, and his beheading followed the next morning.

Unfortunately for Mimsy-Porpington, his was not the only incompetence: “they’d mislaid the rock/Where they usually sharpened the axe”! The “cack-handed twit” of a headsman said “this may sting a bit” to the gibbering wizard, and swung the axe in the air. Alas, unable to sharpen the blade, the executioner was reduced to bestowing numerous blows: “But oh the blunt blade! No difference it made,” the ghost sang,

My head was still definitely there.
The axeman he hacked and he whacked and he thwacked,
“Won’t be too long,” he assured me,
But quick it was not, and the bone-headed clot
Took forty-five goes ’til he floored me.

(The full ballad is here and here; the original handwritten version can be seen here.)

After repeated strokes of the edgeless axe, Mimsy-Porpington finally expired. On festival occasions, he re-enacts his near-beheading, a show quite popular with the Hogwarts student body (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 159).

However, the bone-headed, cloddish headsman was unable to completely behead the wizard. As Ron Weasly notes, the ghost is merely nearly headless.


Nick, as played in the Harry Potter films by John Cleese. Rowling’s own original sketch of Nearly Headless Nick is here.

While he gets a great deal of pleasure from entertaining Hogwarts residents by swinging “his whole head . . . off his neck and . . . onto his shoulder as if it was on a hinge” (Sorceror’s Stone, p. 124), his condition limits his access to the dizziest heights of post-mortem society. Beheading was an aristocratic execution, meant to bring a swift death to the privileged, those able to hunt legally in their lifetime. In the afterlife, the beheaded aristocrats have established a “Headless Hunt” Club, and have blackballed Mimsy-Porpington, who misses their entrance requirements by that much: “‘half an inch of skin and sinew holding my neck on.'” Unable to participate in Club sports like “Horseback Head-Juggling and Head Polo,” Mimsy-Porpington is denied admission into the elite society (Chamber of Secrets, p. 124).

Sadly, their scorn for his crippling condition is not limited to exclusion from their company.

Mimsy-Porpington’s five hundredth Deathday anniversary party, held on Halloween 1992, welcomes hundreds of ghosts from as far away as Kent to a feast of rotten fish, putrid, “maggoty haggis,” and a tombstone cake with grey icing, while an orchestra of 30 musical saws plays waltzes. The Deathday Boy’s speech is interrupted by the members of the Headless Hunt: “Sir Properly Decapitated-Podmore” begins a game of Head Hockey, sending his own head sailing past the humiliated Mimsy-Porpington as he tries to address his guests (Chamber of Secrets, p. 132-7).

Somehow the courageous Gryffindor ghost overcomes this diabolical heads-up-manship and several months as a petrified cloud to live a useful afterlife, helping Harry many times. Most significantly, in the final pages of The Order of the Phoenix, a traumatized and grieving Harry turns to Mimsy-Porpington, hoping to discover a way to keep his dead friend and guardian Sirius Black alive. “‘You’re dead,'” Harry says, “‘But you’re still here, aren’t you? … People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely.'” Mimsy-Porpington gently tells Harry that he can only “‘walk palely'” where his living self once trod, “‘neither here nor there,'” hovering between life and death for fear of the unknown. However, Black risked his life joyously and died laughing; he will not linger between death and life. Harry must live on without him.

There may be historical precedent for Mimsy-Porpington’s death in the botched execution of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1685), when the notorious Jack Ketch took five blows to kill the rebel, and finally had to use a knife to sever the last “skin and sinew” connecting the head to the corpse. Monmouth’s hairstyle in portraits from the late 1600s resembles that drawn by Rowling in her sketch of Nearly Headless Nick, although that sketch shows a beard style from the early 1600s, nearly 70 years earlier. Moreover, the ghost enters Harry Potter’s life wearing an Elizabethan neck ruff and says that he has not eaten in nearly 400 years, implying a death in the late 1500s.

In spite of this wibbly-wobbly timeline, Mimsy-Porpington’s deathdate establishes the firm chronology of Rowling’s series: the five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1492 would fall in 1992; therefore the events of Chamber of Secrets (published in 1997) must occur in 1992. The dating of the series is confirmed five books later by the tombstones of Harry’s parents, who died on Halloween Day, 1981 (Deathly Hallows, p. 328). For J.K. Rowling, death, the last enemy — not life — marks the measure of this world’s time.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Other Voices,Summary Executions,The Supernatural

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Unspecified Year: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

1 comment October 11th, 2010 Headsman

On an unspecified date around this time in the late 1820s, the narrator of Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned Man leaves off his diary — bound for the guillotine.

An illustration from The Last Day of a Condemned Man.

The young Hugo‘s first major work of fiction, this 1829 story dramatizes the torment of an unnamed man doomed for an unstated crime. By abstracting its central character, Hugo generalizes its unabashed anti-death penalty message … but one of the few morsels of specificity places the man’s conviction on “a beautiful morning at the close of August,” with the action unfolding over the ensuing six weeks until his date with the guillotine.

If not exactly Hugo’s greatest work, this emotional rendering of a man’s anguish awaiting death well befits an artist deeply sensitive to the passion of the scaffold — and a period when many writers witnessed, critiqued, contested, and even faced the phenomenon of public execution.

They say that it is nothing,–that one does not suffer; that it is an easy death. Ah! then, what do they call this agony of six weeks,–this summing-up in one day? What, then, is the anguish of this irreparable day, which is passing so slowly and yet so fast? What is this ladder of tortures which terminates in the scaffold? Are they not the same convulsions whether life is taken away drop by drop, or intellect extinguished thought by thought?

Now I must fortify myself, and think firmly of the Executioner, the cart, the gendarmes, the crowd in the street and the windows.

I have still an hour to familiarize myself with these ideas. All the people will laugh and clap their hands, and applaud; yet among those men, now free, unknown to jailors, and who run with joy to an execution,–in that throng there is more than one man destined to follow me sooner or later, on the scaffold.

More than one who is here to-day on my account, will come hereafter on his own.


Hungarian painter Mihaly Munkacsy‘s The Last Day of a Condemned Man has no relationship to Hugo’s book, but deals in a similar mood. It won an award from the Paris salon in 1870.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man is available free online (English | French), or in throwback print form from Amazon.com.

* The prisoner finds in his cell the names of then-notable criminals who previously occupied it — a concession to period specificity. The last of these names is Castaing, meaning our man’s story takes place after that poisoner’s 1823 beheading. A subsequent reference to Louis-Auguste Papavoine, executed in 1825, would push the execution to the even narrower window of October 1825, 1826, 1827, or 1828.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,Known But To God,Public Executions

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Special: One Thousand and One Nights for One Thousand and One Deaths

3 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

July 26, 2010 marked the 1,000th consecutive consecutive day of fresh death content delivered since this here site debuted on Halloween 2007.

Since rounding the milestone of 500, traffic has grown (nearly 80% of this site’s pageviews have occurred during the second half of its existence to date), awards have been garnered, and many, many heads have been harvested.

Quite a journey.

To celebrate the start of Executed Today‘s second thousand days, we are pleased to welcome scholar Elizabeth M. Hull for a feature excursion into what we flatter ourselves is our literary mirror, One Thousand and One Nights … which is the story of 1,001 stories, each related by the wife of the sultan to stave off her own execution.

By the way: the post below checks in right at 1,001 words.


1,001 Arabian Nights, when no one (real) was executed.

Once there was a young girl named Shahrazad who outwitted death and an angry king. But like all stories, this one begins long before that.

It is said that Shah Zamán returned home unexpectedly and found his wife asleep in the arms of their black cook slave. Naturally, Shah Zamán “drew his scymitar and, cutting the two in four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp.”

Sick from dwelling “on the deed of his wife,” Shah Zamán witnessed the daily orgy between his brother Shahryár’s concubines and slaves, while Shahryár’s Queen’s “slobbering” slave “winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, … threw her and enjoyed her.”

King Shahryár’s greater power should have made him safe from women’s treachery; it did not. When the brothers discovered that even the wife of a powerful Jinn had cuckolded her husband 600 times, they concluded that “they all do it and that there is no woman but who cuckoldeth her husband.”

After slaying his wife, his ten concubines, and their lovers, Shahryár initiated his famous wedding policy, “marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning” before she could betray him. The slaughter went on every day for three years, until “there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation.”

The real story of Shahrazad is the story of damaged masculine honor and the holocaust it requires: 1,108 women and 11 men, until there is no one left to kill. The fundamental condition of this fictional world is men’s inability to control women’s sexuality — or even to control their own sexual desires. After all, the king does not give up sex; instead he kills his partners. His shame, jealousy, grief, rage, and power empty his city of life.

Shahrazad’s own story begins in this empty city.

The virgin whose father has carried out the executions volunteers to marry Shahryár. Her father warns her not to be like the Bull in the tale, and she eagerly asks for the story, which he frames in another cautionary tale. She still marries the king, but her father’s stories set the pattern for her stratagem: play upon natural human curiosity and the love of a good yarn, wrapped in another good yarn, rolled into a tangle of story threads.

Shahrazad tells her husband the story of the Trader who mistakenly killed his wife, and, famously, dawn comes just as he is about to kill his son, “knife in hand — And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day. … ‘What is this to that I could tell thee on the coming night, were I to live and the King would spare me?’ Then said the King in himself, ‘By Allah, I will not slay her, until I shall have heard the rest of her tale.’ So they slept the rest of that night in mutual embrace.”

The cliffhanger involves the trader’s love for his wife and his child, feelings Shahryár long ago killed in himself, since by executing his wives he has eliminated any children they might have borne. An empty city, and a sterile palace.

A complicated dance develops between Shahrazad and Shahryár, its rhythm set by the nights he spends with her between the setting and rising of the sun, metaphorical death and birth.

The classic Richard Francis Burton translations of the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night are also available free on Gutenberg.org.

The stories themselves are a kind of life, not just in the liveliness of adventure, love, sexual humor, and trade. Like life they are full of interruptions, new stories springing from old ones, proliferating, fertile, oozing the kindness and evil in the hearts of man and woman.

The tales reflect the conflict between men and women in Shahryár’s past. Often, women are adulterous, jealous, abusive, and rapacious; occasionally men are angry and brutally violent. Most especially, death fills the tales, thousands of deaths, mostly murders and executions. The famous hero Sindbad, for example, cast into the tomb with his dead wife, murders other widows and widowers for their food and water, takes their valuables, and becomes rich. Sharazad’s world is Darwinian: survival justifies killing.

Sometimes, women govern better than men. In the final story, Ma’aruf finds a ring that controls a Jinn, loses it to his father-in-law, who loses it to his Wazir, who loses it to Ma’aruf’s wife. When her husband tells her to give the ring to him or to her father, she says: “I will keep the ring myself, and belike I shall be more careful of it than you. … So fear no harm so long as I live.” Indeed, they remain happy until she dies.

The point could have been that Shahryár’s life will be happy as long as Shahrazad lives –- if her story ended there. Instead, Ma’aruf’s jealous first wife tries to steal the ring; she is killed by his son in one last conflict with a wicked stepmother. The story ultimately suggests that good women protect their husbands, but so do children.

Sharazad will base her appeal for clemency not just on her own value and but also on her children’s. By now, “Shahrazad had borne the King three boy children … one walking, one crawling and one sucking.” Connecting the stories to their sons, she says to Shahryár, “‘these thousand nights and a night have I entertained thee with stories,'” and asks him for her life: “‘for, an thou kill me, they will become motherless and will find none among women to rear them as they should be reared.’ When the King heard this, he wept and straining the boys to his bosom said, ‘… Shahrazad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste.'”

We never learn how he knows that she is chaste. Perhaps giving him life, life created just for him, not only through children but through the stories that restored his own desire for tomorrow, was enough.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages,Arts and Literature,Fictional,Guest Writers,Other Voices

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1917: Gasim, by Lawrence of Arabia

3 comments July 5th, 2010 Headsman

“With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”

-Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia

This date in 1917 was the eve of the Battle of Aqaba, wherein a force of Arabs with famous British officer T.E. Lawrence emerged from the desert to surprise and capture the Ottoman Red Sea port today located in Jordan.*

And that makes this, in the cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, the date on which the titular character kept the peace within his fragile coalition by personally executing a malefactor to prevent a tribal blood feud.

The victim, Gasim, is a real figure described in the real T.E. Lawrence’s memoirs

a gap-toothed, grumbling fellow, skrimshank in all our marches, bad-tempered, suspicious, brutal, a man whose engagement I regretted, and of whom I had promised to rid myself as soon as we reached a discharging-place.

Gasim is most famous as the beneficiary of the movie scene in which Lawrence boldly turns back into the desert to rescue this worthless retainer when Gasim’s camel is found riderless in the caravan. This, too, is based on an actual incident in Lawrence’s memoir, albeit heavily dramatized on celluloid.

In the film, Lawrence’s godlike power to give Gasim life is soon mirrored by the godlike power to deprive it.

Effectively exploiting dramatic license, Lawrence of Arabia portrays the Englishman surveying the scene of the coming triumph when a disturbance breaks out in his camp. Hastening thither, he discovers clan lining up against clan over the destructive right of blood vengeance because of a murder in the camp — a murder committed by the man he has saved.

To forestall a “tribal bloodbath” on the very eve of victory, Lawrence himself volunteers to execute the culprit. Having once risked everything to save Gasim, Lawrence sacrifices him ruthlessly when the occasion demands.** This act underscores the chameleon-like other-ness of the character, one of the film’s principal leitmotifs: “I have no tribe, and no one is offended!”

Though the real Lawrence did no such thing to the real Gasim, this astonishing scene is also related in the memoirs — just at an earlier point, and with a different, less dramatically integral character.

My followers had been quarrelling all day; and while I was lying near the rocks a shot was fired. I paid no attention; for there were hares and birds in the valley; but a little later Suleiman roused me and made me follow him across the valley to an opposite bay in the rocks, where one of the Ageyl, a Boreida man, was lying stone dead with a bullet through his temples. The shot must have been fired from close by; because the skin was burnt about one wound. The remaining Ageyl were running frantically about; and when I asked what it was Ali, their head man, said that Hamed the Moor had done the murder. I suspected Suleiman, because of the feud between the Atban and Ageyl which had burned up in Yenbo and Wejh; but Ali assured me that Suleiman had been with him three hundred yards further up the valley gathering sticks when the shot was fired. I sent all out to search for Hamed, and crawled back to the baggage, feeling that it need not have happened this day of all days when I was in pain.

As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon Hamed’s back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just beyond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put down his rifle to lift the gear; and was at my mercy till the others came. We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder a wanton crime.

Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.

I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and gave him a few moments’ delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.

Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence almost palpably manifests the conflicting aspects of his character as he shoots Gasim to death — and he confirms the transformative effect of his first homicide in subsequent dialogue with Gen. Edmund Allenby.

Lawrence: I killed two people. One was … yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was … well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
Allenby: That’s to be expected.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
Lawrence: No … something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

* Actually, Aqaba is Jordan’s only port. This battle was not so epic as the film depicts.

** In a bit of complex foreshadowing, the cinematic Gasim has told Lawrence at the outset of the expedition that “Allah favors the compassionate.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Fictional,Jordan,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1979: Gu Shan, of The Vagrants fame

1 comment March 21st, 2010 dogboy

It’s the spring equinox, but here at Executed Today, this date brings no bunnies or pastels.

However, in the spirit of softness, it brings this time only a fictional execution.

On this date in 1979, Gu Shan, the central character of Yiyun Li‘s novel The Vagrants gets a bullet to the heart in the Chinese town of Muddy River. The novel traces the lives of several townspeople in Muddy River who are touched by Shan’s death.

The short life of Gu Shan is secondary to the action of the novel itself: first a revolutionary, then a counter-revolutionary, the 28-year-old is imprisoned for acting against the government. As she sits in jail, she continues to write, and the scribbles in her journals are used in a retrial to garner a death sentence.

In a town of 80,000, her actions can be both consequential and inconsequential, but the people around her are a wholly forgotten lot. In a sense, then, Shan is important mostly because she’s noticed, and, as the saying goes, that really ties the room together.

The story tracks a cluster of characters who interact on the streets but live very different — almost uniformly bleak — lives. These range from Nini, a deformed girl whose mother was brutally assaulted by Shan when the latter was a revolutionary (a crime for which Shan suffered no consequences) to Bashi, the deranged son of China’s best Korean War-era pilot, who mutilates Shan’s corpse and shows a mild obsession for a 7-year-old boy.

Muddy River plays host to dozens of other characters connected to the execution, and Li paints a vividly depressing picture of China immediately after Mao Zedong’s death. The town is a collection of sad lives mired in moral depravity brought about by destitution and Party corruption. The most positive events transpire in quarters in a portable toilet.

Assuming you’re not looking for a pick-me-up on this equinoctial day (and why would you be at this blog if you were?), The Vagrants is well worth the read.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Shot

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1911: Ah Q

Add comment November 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1911, the fictional title character of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q was shot in “Weichuang village,” China.

Ah Q wins another victory. Image from the Marxist Internet Archive.

A modern masterpiece that remains standard reading in China, The True Story of Ah Q was also one of the first literary pieces in the vernacular. Published in 1921 and set in the events of the Xinhai Revolution ten years prior, the novella/short story acidly satirizes China through the biography of the absurdly hapless Ah Q.

Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun) presents the reader a peasant whose real name is literally unknown — an everyman, and no man at all — and proceeds to characterize this discomfiting allegory: a weakling, a bully, a chauvinist, a fool, whose pluck is all folly born of a bottomless capacity for convincing himself that each new failure and humiliation of his abject life is a victory. (In 1933, the American journalist Edgar Snow asked Lu Xun if there were still manh Ah Qs in China. “It’s worse now,” Lu Xun replied. “Now it’s Ah Qs who are running the country.”)

The second and third chapters detail many such “victories.” Through them, the Chinese tongue gained the phrase “the spirit of Ah Q” to indicate determined self-deception.

This story is well worth reading, which can be done for free here.

Though specific calendar dates are scarcely at all alluded to in the narrative itself, the timing of the “climactic” execution — it is an empty death tragic only in its dearth of tragedy, for a revolution that from the author’s standpoint of hindsight was still struggling with the country’s colonial legacy of weakness and backwardness — can be deduced from the text.

Its action takes place in the confused days immediately following the town’s going over to the revolution, which swept through the Chinese provinces in late October and early November of 1911.*

The robbery that precipitates Ah Q’s execution takes place on a night with “no moon”; according to the year’s lunar chart, there was a new moon on the night of Nov. 20. (The December new moon is much too late to make sense.) In the story, it is “four days later” that Ah Q is arrested at night, then drug out for interrogation the next morning (the 25th); returned to his cell and recalled the morning after (the 26th) to sign a confession;** and after one more night in custody,&dagger hauled to an execution he does not even realize is taking place until the last moment.

Suddenly it occurred to him — “Can I be going to have my head cut off?” Panic seized him and everything turned dark before his eyes, while there was a humming in his ears as if he had fainted. But he did not really faint. Although he felt frightened some of the time, the rest of the time he was quite calm. It seemed to him that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to have his head cut off.

He still recognized the road and felt rather surprised: why were they not going to the execution ground? He did not know that he was being paraded round the streets as a public example. But if he had known, it would have been the same; he would only have thought that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to be made a public example of.

Ah Q suddenly became ashamed of his lack of spirit, because he had not sung any lines from an opera. His thoughts revolved like a whirlwind: The Young Widow at Her Husband’s Grave was not heroic enough. The words of “I regret to have killed” in The Battle of Dragon and Tiger were too poor. I’ll thrash you with a steel mace was still the best. But when he wanted to raise his hands, he remembered that they were bound together; so he did not sing I’ll thrash you either.

“In twenty years I shall be another …”‡ In his agitation Ah Q uttered half a saying which he had picked up himself but never used before. The crowd’s roar “Good!!!” sounded like the growl of a wolf.

At that instant his thoughts revolved again like a whirlwind. Four years before, at the foot of the mountain, he had met a hungry wolf which had followed him at a set distance, wanting to eat him. He had nearly died of fright, but luckily he happened to have an axe in his hand, which gave him the courage to get back to Weichuang. He had never forgotten that wolf’s eyes, fierce yet cowardly, gleaming like two will-o’-the-wisps, as if boring into him from a distance. Now he saw eyes more terrible even than the wolf’s: dull yet penetrating eyes that, having devoured his words, still seemed eager to devour something beyond his flesh and blood. And these eyes kept following him at a set distance.

These eyes seemed to have merged into one, biting into his soul.

“Help, help!”

But Ah Q never uttered these words. All had turned black before his eyes, there was a buzzing in his ears, and he felt as if his whole body were being scattered like so much light dust.

As for any discussion of the event, no question was raised in Weichuang. Naturally all agreed that Ah Q had been a bad man, the proof being that he had been shot; for if he had not been bad, how could he have been shot? But the consensus of opinion in town was unfavourable. Most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was not such a fine spectacle as a decapitation; and what a ridiculous culprit he had been too, to pass through so many streets without singing a single line from an opera. They had followed him for nothing.

* According to this footnote, it can be more specifically dated to the fall of Shaoxing, which would have been early November.

** Ah Q has no idea he is signing a confession; an illiterate, he makes his mark with a circle — fixated only on making it a perfect circle, at which endeavor he naturally fails “victoriously.”

† During Ah Q’s last night on earth, the scene cuts to two local officials arguing about the prisoner’s fate, where the man’s life is forfeit in some other mean contest of the municipal pecking order — “Punish one to awe one hundred! See now, I have been a member of the revolutionary party for less than twenty days, but there have been a dozen cases of robbery, none of them solved yet; and think how badly that reflects on me. Now this one has been solved, you come and argue like a pedant. It won’t do!”

‡ According to this footnote, “‘In twenty years I shall be another stout young fellow’ was a phrase often used by criminals before execution, to show their scorn of death.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Known But To God,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,Theft,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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